Analysis

Israel Almost Dragged Into War With Hezbollah Due to Operational Failure

Israel celebrates success in tricking Hezbollah, but had the army ambulance taken a direct, lethal hit by a Hezbollah missile on the Lebanon border, there would have been five military funerals

An Israeli tank in Avivim, near the Lebanese border, August 31, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Once the applause dies down and the Israeli media stops patting the army on the back, perhaps we’ll be free to delve more deeply into how Sunday’s incident on the Lebanese border played out.

Admittedly, the bottom line of the latest round in the north was positive. Israel took action to thwart a series of threats from Iran and Hezbollah, the government behaved responsibly, the Israel Defense Forces prepared properly for retaliation from Lebanon, and the incident ended with no Israeli casualties.

These results lead to justified satisfaction. But they shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that we were just a hair’s breadth away from a major escalation with Hezbollah on Sunday.

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This escalation almost happened due to a serious mistake by the IDF that by pure chance (“a lot of luck,” as several officers admitted on Sunday), ended with no casualties. While it is marketing the achievement, the army should also investigate the mishap and how it could have dragged Israel into a conflict it didn’t want.

As the intelligence agencies predicted, Hezbollah’s response to the two attacks it blamed on Israel – the air strike on a group of drone operators near Damascus and the bombing of an essential piece of equipment for producing precision missiles in Beirut – came on the Lebanese border and focused on military targets rather than civilian ones. Hezbollah even recycled a scenario from the past – firing anti-tank missiles at IDF soldiers.

One of these, a Kornet missile, hit a military outpost near Moshav Avivim but caused no casualties. Northern Command and the Galilee Division were well prepared; they had reduced the number of targets Hezbollah could hit and changed their deployment. It’s likely that some of Hezbollah’s fire was aimed at empty targets.

A fire burns near Maroun El Ras on the Lebanese side of the border following an Israeli strike, September 1, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

But at least two missiles were aimed at a very real target: an armored military ambulance on a road between Kibbutz Yiron and Avivim. Unable to hit soldiers in stationary positions, Hezbollah’s anti-tank units had to search for moving targets, which are harder to hit, but definitely not impossible.

As seen in the film clip released by Hezbollah, one missile missed the ambulance, which continued driving fast. The second missile hit the ambulance, but the five soldiers inside managed to escape and no one was hurt.

Had the ambulance suffered a direct, lethal hit with all the soldiers inside, Israel would have woken up on Monday to a very different kind of day, with none of the victory celebrations or the boasting. The armor on most military vehicles used along the border can’t withstand a Kornet strike.

What’s particularly worrying about this story is that the ambulance shouldn’t have been there. As part of Northern Command’s preparations, for the past several days soldiers have been using back roads that aren’t vulnerable to flat-trajectory weapons from Lebanon.

Yet for reasons still unknown, the ambulance crew, under the command of a doctor, didn’t take the safer route. Perhaps the crew made a navigational error, or perhaps it wasn’t familiar with the orders in detail. But whatever the reason, the doctor and his crew were driving on a road that was vulnerable to Hezbollah fire.

The road between Yiron and Avivim is in the outer ring of roads along the border, but it’s still within the Kornet’s range of roughly 5.5 kilometers. If the person aiming the missile had been more skilled, the media would have been covering several military funerals on Monday.

No less serious is the fact that, since Israel’s military responses are dictated to a large extent by the number of casualties, the country might have been dragged into a serious escalation despite its declared interest in calm.

This isn’t the first time such an incident has happened. The IDF has an ongoing problem with enforcing discipline in the field during emergencies.

Israeli troops near the Lebanese border, August 31, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Just last November, a similar incident occurred on the border of the Gaza Strip. During the escalation that erupted in the wake of a failed special-forces operation in Khan Yunis, Hamas fired a Kornet missile at Israeli troops deployed near the Black Arrow Memorial on Gaza’s northern border. The missile hit a bus, which by pure luck was empty, but a soldier standing nearby was seriously wounded.

It later turned out that a nearby checkpoint had failed to enforce divisional and brigade-level orders to prevent unarmored vehicles from entering areas vulnerable to Hamas fire.

Another mistake reminiscent of Sunday’s error occurred in January 2015. In that incident, which has been much discussed over the past week, Hezbollah fired Kornet missiles at an IDF convoy on Mount Dov to avenge the assassination of senior Hezbollah operative Jihad Mughniyeh, an Iranian general and five other Hezbollah fighters. The jeeps that were hit were carrying officers coming to reinforce the sector because of the tension.

Later, questions arose as to whether their presence was actually necessary and whether all the relevant safety instructions had been enforced. It also turned out that the jeeps were traveling within the range of Kornets fired from Lebanon.

Since Sunday, we’ve heard a lot of praise for the IDF’s preparations, along with excessive discussion (which may even be harmful to security) of the trick it used to deceive Hezbollah. As far as we know, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has no interest in continuing to trade blows with Israel right now. According to Israeli sources, Hezbollah sent urgent messages via the Lebanese government on Sunday that it wants to resume a cease-fire immediately.

But it would be better not to celebrate our success in tricking Hezbollah too much. First, because a humiliated enemy is one that has a redoubled incentive to take revenge. And second, because at least in the case of the ambulance, Israel was more lucky than smart.